PNG, Admiralty Group: Trouble on Manus Island in Lorengau - Updated
Posted 26 September 2011
We were sailing East in company with Australian yachts Unicorn IX and Red Boomer II from the Hermit Islands to Kavieng (New Ireland) on Sunday 18 September 2011.
Our friends on Unicorn were concerned that they may not have enough fuel and made the decision to pull in to the regional centre of Lorengau at midday to buy fuel and then carry on. The people of Ninigo and the Hermits had advised us not to anchor overnight at Lorengau, or any of the islands to the East or South of Manus, due to concerns for our safety.
Unicorn anchored off the town, with the skipper going ashore to get cash from the ATM and find a fuel outlet. He later reported strange behaviour from the security guard at the bank, who insisted on trying to look over his shoulder whilst making the withdrawal (of 1,000 kina).
On the skipper's return to the yacht, a local boat immediately approached, with a number of men on board. The leader, claiming to be a customs official, though without uniform or identification, boarded Unicorn and said that the skipper should come with him to check in and be prepared to pay a fee (curiously of 1,000 kina!). The skipper refused to comply, stating that he wanted to buy fuel and leave. The man said that the yacht would be seized if it attempted to leave and at this point threats of robbery and slashing of the yacht's tender were made. The "official" brought more men onto the boat, saying that they would "rob it" if the skipper did not comply. The skipper offered money in order for them to leave but the man maintained his insistence on them not leaving. It is to be noted that it was a Sunday, when Customs in Lorengau are reportedly closed.
During this time, Unicorn maintained radio contact with ourselves and Red Boomer II and requested assistance. Another Australian yacht sailing East informed us that the Australian Navy often has a boat in Lorengau Naval Base and a call was put out over the radio on Channel 16 for assistance. Whilst no response came, the men on board Unicorn may have been made uneasy by the radio calls, as they eventually left the yacht, first insisting that the skipper announce on the radio that the men were departing and that he "may have over-reacted". Unicorn pulled up anchor and left quickly, pursued by a local boat for some miles.
It is strongly advised that yachts avoid the Manus area. Vessels travelling East from Jayapura in West Papua into Papua New Guinea should note that safe opportunities for refuelling are very limited until Kavieng in New Ireland, some 670 nautical miles from Jayapura. It should also be noted that we experienced significant current against us (up to 3 knots) the whole way and that the prevailing wind is East/ South East, making sailing a challenge.
Sarah & Scott Armstrong
Update posted 7 October 2011
An update on the situation occuring at Lorengau as described above is that upon reaching Kavieng (New Ireland) we were informed by Customs officials that a Customs officer from Lorengau, Manus had lodged a report stating that an Australian yacht by the name of Unicorn had entered the post and left again without checking in. It appeared, therefore, that the man claiming to be a Customs official actually did hold that position, making his threatening behaviour even more of a concern.
Upon hearing Unicorn's account, the Kavieng Customs office strongly requested a report of the incident, which was duly given. When we on Anui reached our next port of Kokopo (Rabaul) with Unicorn, we attended a meeting with the Customs Regional Director to discuss the incident. He responded with a letter of full apology to Unicorn, stating that the matter would be addressed with the officer in question.
This does not necessarily alter the difficulties in safely visiting Manus, but all respect must be given to PNG Customs Authority for being willing to hear the complaint and making a full apology.